Barber: Another Super Bowl collapse for Kyle Shanahan

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MIAMI - They said Andy Reid couldn’t win the big one. The enduring coach ranks sixth all-time in total victories, but had never won an NFL championship. It was the monkey on his back.

Now the monkey has climbed to a different back. Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs won Super Bowl LIV on Sunday night at Hard Rock Stadium. They did it by stunning the 49ers, taking a 20-10 San Francisco lead midway through the fourth quarter and spinning it into a 31-20 victory for the Chiefs.

For the second time in four years, Kyle Shanahan lost the Super Bowl. For the second time in four years, his team held a significant advantage, only to see it shatter into shards. The first time it happened, Shanahan was the Falcons offensive coordinator in Super Bowl LI; he wasn’t at the top of the food chain, but his play calling came under withering scrutiny.

This time is worse. This time Shanahan was play caller and clock manager and player motivator and fourth-down decision- maker for the losing team. The 49ers head coach now owns two simultaneous reputations. Shanahan is the brilliant diagrammer of football offense. And he is the man who can’t get his team to close out the biggest games.

Each will ride atop his shoulders until disproven.

What a crushing end to a triumphant week for Shanahan. He was unfailingly gracious during his endless, tedious media sessions in Miami. In particular, he shined while answering 28-3 questions. So many 28-3 questions. That was the lead his Falcons enjoyed in Super Bowl LI, before the Patriots came charging back to humiliate them.

It had been Shanahan’s worst hour, but he never flinched when describing his pain following that loss, and he remained calm but persuasive in walking reporters through his decisions that day.

And now the cycle begins anew. Shanahan will get 20-10 questions at his wrap-up session with the Bay Area media this week. And he’ll be buried in them if and when his team reaches the Super Bowl again.

Add up those two breakdowns, and you get this factoid, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information: After the 10-minute mark of the 4th quarter, Shanahan’s teams were outscored a combined 46-0 (including overtime) in two Super Bowls.

It isn’t entirely fair to pin it on Shanahan, of course.

After the 49ers pounded Green Bay in the NFC championship game two weeks ago, I went back and watched Super Bowl LI from the 8:31 mark of the third quarter – the 28-3 mark. And I had to admit, Shanahan’s explanations made sense. People kill him for not running out the clock in that game. But there were circumstances, including early-down penalties, that begged for passing. The Falcons did run the ball a bit, they just didn’t do it well. And it was the Atlanta defense that truly collapsed that day as it attempted to close out Tom Brady.

Who knows, maybe a closer examination of the 49ers’ loss to the Chiefs will reveal that Shanahan was again the victim of circumstance. Clearly, there were other culprits Sunday night. Jimmy Garoppolo, so good for three quarters, missed wide-open Emmanuel Sanders near the goal in the fourth quarter. The San Francisco defensive backs, so good for three quarters (are you sensing a trend?), made inexplicable coverage errors in the most crucial moments.

But Kyle Shanahan is the head coach, and ultimate responsibility is his. And to be honest, he made some decisions that backfired, and some that were downright puzzling.

The end of the first half might be the sequence destined to keep him awake on the flight home. The 49ers had played well to that point, and when Arik Armstead wrecked a reverse to wide receiver Mecole Hardman that resulted in a 6-yard loss, the Chiefs were looking at third-and-14 with 1:53 on the clock.

The 49ers were poised to get the ball back. Shanahan owned three timeouts. But he didn’t use one before the next play, and he didn’t use one after a short pass to Damien Williams netted just a yard, forcing the Chiefs to punt from midfield.

Somewhere in there, a Fox camera caught 49ers general manager John Lynch watching the game from a suite and furiously gesturing for a timeout. Shanahan let the clock run.

Kansas City’s punt went into the end zone, and the 49ers took over on their own 20-yard line with 59 seconds on the clock — a decent amount of time with three timeouts in Shanahan’s pocket. The coach was strangely passive, though. He called two runs that gained a total of 5 yards. It was odd, but it was consistent. Shanahan was running out the clock, content to receive the second-half kickoff with the game tied 10-10.

Did he ponder a more aggressive approach?

“We did consider it,” Shanahan said after the game, “but where we got the ball and the fact it was 10-10 and they had three timeouts, if we would have gotten an explosive run on the first one, we would have. I want to say we got a four-yard run, so we let the clock run a little bit to get it down. But no, we were good with that situation. We would do that every single time, especially with us starting with the ball in the third quarter.”

But then Shanahan changed his mind and started dialing up passes. Garoppolo threw one that Jeff Wilson turned into a 20-yard gain. Next he put a perfect deep throw into the arms of George Kittle, but it was negated by pass interference on the tight end.

“Once I realized we did get the first, we did take our shots,” Shanahan explained. “We would’ve gotten the points from that, but we got an unfortunate penalty.”

Shanahan found himself midway between caution and aggressiveness during that series, and the half ended with a whimper.

There were other calls that might open Shanahan to criticism. On their first drive of the third quarter, the 49ers pushed to the Kansas City 24, where they faced fourth-and-2. A field goal would give them the lead. But the Chiefs are a team that can score in massive waves once they get going. That situation screamed for a new set of downs and the possibility of a touchdown.

“I thought about it for a little bit there,” Shanahan said. “Probably would have if it was less than one (yard), but it was closer to two. Robbie (Gould) is automatic, and our defense was playing pretty good at the time.”

Shanahan settled for a field goal and a 13-10 lead.

Mostly, it wasn’t his tactics. It was the results — the thing that defines all professional athletes and coaches. Once again, Shanahan’s team had clenched up on America’s biggest stage. The image will follow him until he wins a Super Bowl. If he’s fortunate, it won’t take Shanahan 21 years, as it did Andy Reid.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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